Essay: Head Shaving

by Emer O'Toole on 13 June 2012

Writer and academic Emer O'Toole draws on her own hair history to unpick Ellie Grace Cumming's Fashion Fetish film.

Writer and academic Emer O'Toole draws on her own hair history to unpick Ellie Grace Cumming's Fashion Fetish film.

I’ve shaved my head twice. The shearing events in question were nothing like the elegant and sombre ritual that Ellie Grace Cumming captures in her beautiful short film Is My Mind For Me. The colour scheme in my immediate environs did not dull to moody charcoal, nor did the scissors weigh like a sceptre in my purposeful hand.

I first went bald at a stupid o’clock in the morning houseparty – my mate’s brother Tadhgh buzzed away at my scalp while others variously egged us on or tried to dissuade us. On the second occasion, my friend Jen, though obviously thinking I had a screw or seven loose, agreed to rid me of my long locks after she’d given her boyfriend his monthly trim. What’s memorable about both occasions is laughter, fun and irreverence. And I think that’s important, because shaving your head can be a playful act. It shows that you like to experiment with the way that your body signifies in the world around you, and also that you don’t take yourself too seriously.

While I wish I could claim only philosophical motivations for my Sineád O’Connor tributes, I must admit that shaving my head was largely a pragmatic decision. And no, I didn’t have nits. I’d dyed myself into hellish hair-corners both times. The first inferno was peroxide blonde - cute when maintained, expensive to maintain, never maintained, and thus not cute. The second time I had a jet black coiffure, a look that suits me like a feather boa suits a Doberman Pincer. Shaving my head was a get out of jail free card – I had me a funky, daring new style, which dispensed with ill-advised dye-jobs to boot. And I looked most fetching, I’ve been told. The first shearing did require a little bravery (and whisky), but now I know that I can always shave my head and start again. That gives me a sense of freedom.

There’s power in ambiguity – in being able to expose people's prejudices and expectations. There’s pleasure in playing with cultural signifiers.

Shaving your head is an enlightening wee social adventure too. All of a sudden, people read you differently. About three days after the first annihilation of the tresses, I was proudly showing off my scalp in the Front Lounge in Dublin city. The Front Lounge is a straight-friendly gay-bar or a gay-friendly straight-bar, depending on who you ask. Either way, it’s deadly. I was up getting a drink, and a man with bad energy was trying, I thought, to chat me up. I responded with minimum attention until he pulled out his trump card. He said ‘It doesn’t cost anything to be nice.’ He had me there. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice, does it? So I apologised, and explained that I’m a bit wary of chatting with strangers at bars, because I’ve had some nasty experiences. He replied in a slime sodden slur ‘it’s okay. I know what kind of a girl you are. I know what kind of a place this is. I just wanted to tell you that you look like a very sensuous woman.’ Ugh. Add one more reason not to chat to strangers at bars.

As I walked back to my lovelies, trying to understand what had just happened, I realised, ‘it’s the hair!’ The slime-bag had been unable to read me as anything other than gay. And when he read me as gay, he felt that he was entitled to my attention in a way that he wouldn’t have if he’d read me as straight. Shaving my head allowed me to see the extent to which people make deep judgements about things like gender, sexuality, and even personality based on shallow markers. We are all being pigeonholed all the time. Changing the way you signify makes this visible. Ultimately, give or take a slime-bag or two, this experience was useful to me. There’s power in ambiguity – in being able to expose people's prejudices and expectations. There’s pleasure in playing with cultural signifiers. There’s joy in looking at your ambiguous reflection and finding that it is still you, and there’s even more joy in changing others’ opinions of what is beautiful. In this way, head shaving can function as a feminist act – it breaks down learned beliefs about how men and women should behave, and helps to create a visually less gendered society.

Still from 'Is My Mind For Me', a fashion film by Ellie Grace Cumming and Sarah Piantadosi (2012)

Ellie Grace Cumming’s Is My Mind For Me is ostensibly about trichophila, a phenomenon which I was obliged to look up. Apparently, some people get turned on by human hair. Apparently there are seedy websites and everything. Who knew? Cumming’s film is a sexy and serious exploration of this fetishism, evoking the sinister cultural schema associated with women’s bare scalps – prison, camps, collaborators – but also rewriting these cultural meanings through model Sardé Hardie’s slow, deliberate movements and unflinching gaze.

While I think this is an important statement, I worry that in some ways it reinforces the idea that shaved-headed women are transgressive and, well, scary. Or even, perhaps, that head shaving is a sign of mental distress. A shaved head is not scary nor a sign of psychological disturbance – it’s just a hairstyle. Think of all the beautiful African women for whom it has been a cultural norm for generations.

My fears in this regard are somewhat assuaged by the film’s ultimate representation of skinhead Sardé Hardie. What a total babe. I think I just went up a notch on the Kinsey scale. Cumming frames the film with the question of whether a woman’s decision to shave her head should be understood as a rejection of sexuality, or a rejection of how female sexuality is supposed to look. But Hardie’s newly naked face suggests that the answer is neither. Admiring the bare elegance of Hardie’s exposed features, I am reminded of how beautiful and sexy shaved heads are: the curve of the skull and the nape of the neck unveiled, the softness of the newly shorn begging to be touched.




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Boned: Shaun Cole on the history of men's underwear.

Essay: Mind Games

11 December 2008
Make Up Your Mind: Alexander Fury on the Maison Martin Margiela 'Wig-Coat'.

Essay: Hair Brush by BLESS

01 July 2004
Shelf Appeal: Penny Martin on the 'sinister sexual iconography' of BLESS's 'Hair' brush.
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